Palo Alto Weekly
News - January 15, 2010
Parcel tax committee chairs pledge positive campaign
Palo Alto Board of education places measure on May 4 ballot
by Chris Kenrick
Three parents leading the effort to renew Palo Alto's school parcel tax vowed Tuesday to mount a campaign that will unite the community around its schools.
The three, Tracy Stevens, Anna Thayer and Al Yuen, introduced themselves to the Board of Education just prior to a unanimous board vote to place the $589-per-parcel tax measure on the May 4 ballot. If passed by a two-thirds majority, it will replace the current $493-per-parcel tax, which expires next year.
"This campaign is absolutely the most critically important thing I could be doing with my time," said Thayer, a PTA executive board member and mother of four children who attend Fairmeadow Elementary School and Gunn High School.
Yuen, whose family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when he was in second grade, said his father instilled in him "a need to pay back, to fulfill a lot of the things we got growing up in the United States." He is the father of four boys.
Stevens, a Stanford resident whose two children attended Nixon Elementary School, Terman Middle School and Gunn High School, said parcel-tax campaigners aim to achieve the twin goals of uniting the community and "reminding ourselves why our schools are so successful."
Noting the state financial crisis and the fact that parcel-tax funds are completely locally controlled, Stevens said, "At this time, this district should continue to represent what public education can be at its best."
The co-chairs said the campaign will be called Support Palo Alto Schools 2010, and that it will launch a website, supportpaloaltoschools2010.org, by next week.
The proposed tax would replace the current parcel tax and increase it by $96 a year. The current tax generates about $9.4 million a year, about 6 percent of the school district's operating budget.
Like the current parcel tax, the proposed replacement would last for six years and have an optional waiver for seniors.
Palo Alto resident Roberta Stone spoke against the proposed tax, which does not allow a waiver for low-income homeowners.
"I believe the goals of this parcel tax are very important and admirable, but I don't believe the means for achieving that goal are ethical," Stone said. "A flat tax of close to $600 places a very significant and harmful burden on the low-income residents of the city, the homeowners who are low-income or very low-income."
In response, district staff members said state law does not allow them to offer a waiver of the parcel tax for low-income residents.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Albert Henning,
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm
I'm always amused by the high-dudgeon nature of the responses on threads here related to taxes. Or, I would be amused, if the subject were not so serious.
If we do not educate our children, our society will fail.
It is therefore the responsibility of society to provide standards for education, and to deliver to our children the means to achieve those standards.
Old people are not exempt or apart from society. Neither are low-income people. We all bear the responsibility.
Prop 13 is, unequivocally, the greatest transfer of wealth from the young members of society to the old: that is, where 'old' is defined by those who do not move from one home to another for a long time. Prop 13 has caused California schools to go from 4th in the nation, to 48th, in terms of delivering to our children the means to achieve educational standards.
At the same time, Prop 13 cannot be overturned. It probably cannot be amended. Therefore, recognizing the essential nature of education, society has sought sources of funds to deliver education. That's where unfairness creeps in. The number of ways to raise money is limited. Parcel taxes have succeeded in the past. It is reasonable to expect they will succeed again. Fairness is not really a consideration (and I'm sorry about that). It is purely a matter of political pragmatism.
Note that communities around the country against which Palo Alto residents measure themselves (Chicago suburbs such as Winnetka, NY suburbs such as Chappaqua, Boston suburbs such as Newton, NJ suburbs such as Chatham) spend *twice* what Palo Alto spends on education, per student. Some of that amount is due to operational expenses: it's cold in those places, for instance, and heating oil costs money. However, teacher salaries tend to be higher in PA than in those places; which really means PA is under-funding physical plant, and supplemental programs, and has larger class sizes (proven to reduce educational effectiveness) relative to its perceived peer group.
PA spends maybe twice on average what other CA towns spend on education. Is that fair? Serrano v. Priest (1971) found it was not. But communities such as PA have found ways to circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of Serrano. On the other hand, PA is receptive to students from outside of the community, to come here for their schooling, under several state programs.
The question remains, how much is enough to spend, in order that our students meet (and even exceed) the educational standards? As I said, relative to other CA towns, we spend more. Relative to out-of-state peers, we spend less. (Our physical plant is not good, but we have a bond issue to address the worst parts of that problem.)
But given that our students appear to perform well on standardized tests, one must ask: does the amount spent per pupil matter? Does the physical plant matter? Or are the results purely a matter of family resources? In short: at what tipping point does chronic underfunding of education erode the foundation on which our society is based?
These questions -- how much is fair, how much per pupil should be spent, does money affect outcome?, and so forth -- are important. In the end, however, there is no hard answer. Each of us must decide for ourselves, and vote accordingly.
I will vote for the tax, because a) I don't pay enough in property tax (because of Prop 13), b) I believe in Palo Alto as a fine place to live and raise a family, and c) even though my kids are grown, I believe every family's children deserve the same opportunity mine have enjoyed. I will always vote for money in favor of education, because education has made an enormous difference for my forebears, and will make a difference for those who come after me.
And I don't mind the senior exemption. Seniors are part of the community. They are valued and valuable, and should not be driven out. (My issue with Prop 13, therefore, is not it acknowledged an important problem, but that it went too far to 'solve' it.)
One last aside: if one wants to find out how much property tax is paid by one's neighbors, Zillow is a terrific resource.